Putting History in a Piecrust

I have always loved old cookbooks, and cooking from them.

It is related to my belief that if I can cook and taste the flavors of a culture, I can come closer to understanding the people of that culture.

In cooking and eating foods that people ate hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years ago, I feel as if I can get an immediate sense of what it might have been like to live in the times and places where those foods were commonplace and beloved. It gives me a visceral lesson in the ways in which our ancestors lived, worked, played and ate. Knowing what sustained them, sustains me and my understanding of who they were.

Many ancient foods are still very popular today, though our ways of cooking with them and eating them may have changed over time.

However, there are exceptions; apple pies were popular in fifteenth century England, for example, and versions that the denizens of of the Tudor courts would have found recognizeable are still being baked in England and the United States to this day.

One addition to the apple pie that was commonplace in England, and especially in Colonial America, however, has regrettably fallen from favor since the eighteenth century: the quince.

Quinces are pome fruits, and are cousins to the pear and the apple. While pear slips are often grafted to hardier and smaller quince rootstock in commercial orchards, these two pomes are not kissing cousins–they will not cross-pollinate. Nor will the quince cross pollinate with the apple, however, these little twisty-branched trees are self-fertile, meaning, you should only need one tree to produce fruit.

And no wonder the apples and pears will not kiss their cousin; a quince look like nothing more than knobby, arthritic pears with a weight problem. Instead of the graceful wasp-waisted and voluptuous hipped profile of most pears, quinces balloon from their lumpy, assymetrical waists into a gourd-like shape which is not improved by their lightly fuzzy green-mottled yellow skin.

They are, in a word, ugly.

What they lack in looks, however, the quince makes up for in fragrance, flavor and cooking properties. A single ripe quince can easily scent an average sized room with a delicious, flowery, honey-like aroma. This fragrance survives being cooked, which is a very good thing; because of the rather rock-like nature and extreme acidic flavor of the average quince’s flesh, they are generally only eaten after being cooked, either into a jelly, a confection known as “quince cheese” or baked into a pie filling.

Ah–pie filling–now we come to the crux of the issue.

The first time I ever heard of a quince, was at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It was mentioned in his journals, where he wrote that it was often made into a most excellently flavored jelly, but that he had also had it added to apple pie, where it made a very good effect.

That visit happened back when I was about thirteen, and I remember walking under quince trees in the orchard as we toured the extensive gardens on the grounds. Having read that bit about quinces in Jefferson’s writings before I had come to see his home, I was thrilled to walk under the very trees he had mentioned, however, I was also saddened because it was high summer and all of the fruits looked like small green, mishappen apples.

So, I vowed that one day, I would come across a quince, and thus put it into an apple pie and see what happened.

And so, on Wednsday, when I was at the Farmer’s Market buying apples to use in a pie for dessert, one farmer had three baskets of very odd-looking yellow fruits. Before I could bother to read the sign, my hand shot out to scoop up one of the homely darlings, and hold it to my nose. I inhaled the scent of a field of wildflowers spiked with a cidery tang. My eyes lit up, and then I saw the sign which confirmed the knowledge that finally, at last, I held in my grasp a quince.

I held in my very own fingers, the golden apple which Paris gave “To the Fairest”–Aphrodite–and thus won Helen. (I wonder what Aphrodite wanted with such a funny looking sour fruit for–she doesn’t seem the baking or jelly-making sort.)

Of course I bought a basket of four of them and brought them home, where I resolved to put them in my apple pie. Because the fruit is so very sour (a fact which I confirmed as soon as I cut the first bit of peel and bit into it, whereupon tears sprung to my eyes), I decided to add a few more ingredients to balance the tartness. I added one quarter cup more of cider, more golden raisins and crystallized ginger, and to enhance the slight pinkish tint that the quince would give the filling, some dried cranberries.

I also decided to crack open the bottle of English ginger-steeped currant wine (Stone’s Original Ginger) which I had been unable to resist at the Asian market, and add a good dollup of that. It was an excellent choice; for one thing, Stone’s has a long history, with its recipe going back to 1740, and for another, the very sweet, gingery cordial perfectly balanced the flowery sour notes of the quince and the predominantly tart apples I had chosen.

What I ended up with, by using my recipe for the Honey and Cider-Sweetened Apple Pie, was a pie with more depth of flavor than I thought was possible. Even though I used only two cups of chopped quince (a single large fruit) to seven and a half cups of apples, the fragrance, flavor and even the pale rosy tint of the quince came right through. The ginger wine supported the dried and crystallized ginger flavors while the apples still took center stage, with the raisins and cranberries playing supporting parts that made a beautifully harmonizing symphony of swirling tastes and textures in the mouth.

I think it was probably the best apple pie I have ever made, and it is certainly the best I have ever eaten; everyone who ate the pie agreed.

I think it is a shame that quinces aren’t utilized more often in modern cookery, because what they lack in outward beauty, they more than make up for with their inner magnificence.

Eighteenth Century Quince-Apple Pie


Barbara’s Lard-Butter Crust

2 tablespoons butter
2 cups of peeled, sliced quince
1/4 cup apple cider
1/4 cup Stone’s Original Ginger
7 1/2 cups of peeled, sliced apples (use at least three different kinds of apples, and include two McIntoshes in the mixture)

3/4 cup apple cider
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup Stone’s Original Ginger
3 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dried sweetened or unsweetened cranberries
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground dry ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch cardamom
pinch salt


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Start cooking the quince first: over medium heat, melt butter into a large saucepan or dutch oven; allow to brown slightly. Add quince and the first measures of cider and wine, and cook, stirring, until the quince begins to fall apart and turn pinkish.

Add apples, the second measures of cider and wine, honey, ginger, raisins and cranberries, and cook cook, stirring for about five minutes.

Put strainer over a smaller saucepan and drain apples, allowing cider, honey and juices to fall into pan. Set aside fruit mixture.

Cook, stirring, over medium high heat, until liquid reduces to 1/2 cup and thickens to a syrup that will coat your spoon. You will notice at this time that as soon as you remove the syrup from the heat and allow it to begin to cool, it will gel. This is what it is supposed to do. (with the added pectin of the quince, this mixture will gel very, very quickly. Watch it carefully so that it doesn’t burn or turn into gummy candy!)

Put apples in a bowl, and pour syrup over and stir together thoroughly. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

Roll out dough as directed, and line a 9″ pie pan with the bottom crust. Pour apple filling in and top with second crust, as directed in pastry crust recipe.

Place in oven on center rack and bake for thirty minutes, then rotate pie pan 180 degrees. Continue to bake until crust is golden brown and the juices that eminate from the steam vents is thick and tawny gold in color–this will take anywhere from 35-45 minutes.

When pie is done, remove from oven and place on wire rack, and allow to cool to room temperature (or nearly so) before eating.


This is very good served with barely sweetened freshly whipped cream that has been flavored with Stone’s, with finely minced crystallized ginger sprinkled over the cream.

It tasted so good that way, we neglected to take photographs of it plated before we started scarfing it down.

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